Piali Dasgupta

Role of leaders in leading the conversation around employee mental health in an organization | Piali Dasgupta | Senior VP – Marketing | Columbia Pacific Communities

Piali DasguptaA bit about myself first, beyond the job titles and the designations. I have been a patient of Treatment Resistant Depression (TRD) and Generalised Anxiety Disorder for over 25 years now. Endless doctors and many, many medicines later, I have come to accept that this dreadful disease is something I need to live with for the rest of my life. It’s my cross to bear.

The disease has altered and impacted every aspect of my life negatively. It makes simple daily acts such as getting off the bed, meeting people and going about one’s daily responsibilities seem like Herculean tasks. That is why in most Western countries, major depression is considered a legitimate disability, as it should be. Only, it is an invisible disability.

This is not a pity party. Or a means to gain sympathy. These are just plain facts that was important to share in the context of this article.

According to World Health Organization, India is one of the most depressed countries in the world, followed by China and USA. If you think of the common factor amongst these countries, poor work-life balance coupled with a frenetic lifestyle emerges as one. The link between poor work-life balance and high levels of stress has already been established by wellness practitioners and doctors. Chronic, unaddressed stress, in many cases, can lead to several mental illnesses such as Anxiety Disorders and Depression.

There are two parts to this conversation. One is about what companies and leaders are doing to ensure optimum mental health of employees? And the second is how are they supporting those that are mentally ill or neurodivergent and helping them flourish at the workplace despite the illness?

If one is perfectly honest, most leaders in India aren’t doing much to address this. Sure, there are initiatives such as counselling sessions, yoga/meditation on site etc. But these are, what I like to call, “PR-able employee welfare programmes” that take a very shallow view of the problem, without really doing anything to address the root causes. The root causes being toxic work culture, inhuman working hours, unsustainable growth plans and a “perform or perish” culture that most start-ups today seem to be very proud of breeding.

There are companies where HR teams organise yoga days while function heads make employees clock in 17-hour work days on a regular basis. What is the point of hosting a yoga session, when employees barely have time to sleep, eat and speak to their parents?

Coming to the second part of the problem on supporting people with mental illnesses; in the nearly 17 years I have spent in the corporate space, I have had some great leaders that have supported me at every step, trying to understand the typical idiosyncrasies that someone with the diseases may have. My current leader is one such person; and there are quite a few in that list. However, I have also experienced extremely toxic work environments and insecure, vicious leaders at large multinationals who did everything possible to ensure I was down in the dumps.

So, ultimately, whether my mental health was better or worse, in many ways, depended on the work environment and the leader I was working with. Of course, there are several other factors that play a part as well. But given that we spend most of our time at work, the environment at work does become extremely crucial.

Mental illness is going to be the next pandemic if organisations don’t take charge of the situation now, and proactively make changes to the work culture that they are creating. Culture is always top down. And the truth is that leaders have leaders too. Unless there is soul searching at the topmost level, and founders, CEOs, and investors realise that this manic route to growth and profitability is myopic, unsustainable and harmful, nothing truly will change in the mental health conversation at workplace.

That’s the unpalatable truth.

*The author is a mental health advocate and hosts a podcast called The Mind Podium which attempts to destigmatize mental illnesses by raising awareness on them.